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Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Released by Kino Lorber

Review by Roy Frumkes

I’ve taught film history classes in comedy, horror, European cinema and film noir.  One class I’ll probably never get to, but would like to have, is a series on Unique Films.  It would span many genres, stretching from the silent days to recent times.  It would include shorts (e.g., The Fleischer Brothers’ BETTY BOOP’S SNOW WHITE and Robert Enrico’s AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE), HARD CORE PORN (Rinse Dream’s CAFÉ FLESH), and even TV commercials.  One of the features would definitely be THE WHITE BUFFALO (1977), an utterly quirky gem of an off-western starring Charles Bronson.


J. Lee Thompson (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, CAPE FEAR) directed nine films starring Bronson, and as a rule they followed a certain pattern which included macho violence, nudity and gunplay – high class exploitation.  The other titles were ST. IVES, CABO BLANCO, 10 TO MIDNIGHT, THE EVIL THAT MEN DO, MURPHY’S LAW, DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN, MESSENGER OF DEATH, and KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS. Although a few of them clearly try to establish unique identities, none come anywhere near THE WHITE BUFFALO in terms of being off-the-charts bizarre.


Richard Sale, who wrote the book the film is based on, also penned the screenplay. The narrative takes place in 1874.  The Civil War is nearly a decade over. Wild Bill Hickok (Bronson) is travelling by train into the heart of the devolving West, and our first and prevailing image of him are the dark glasses he’s wearing.

As filmmaking goes, the eyes are popularly considered to be the prime dramatic tool actors are born with.  Bronson is denied this element of his arsenal, however, since the film’s broad strokes tend toward truthfulness, and the prop eye-glasses replace whatever expressiveness his eyes would have provided.  In real-life, Hickok did wear dark glasses after a certain point in his charismatic career.  He complained of severe headaches, cloudy vision, and an extreme sensitivity to light - all characteristic of Migraines…or perhaps Syphilis.  The latter possibility wouldn’t have been much of a reach.  There was lots of VD floating around the West at the time. Blu-ray commentator Paul Talbot, author of the book “Bronson’s Loose” notes in his delightful Boston accent that contracting a venereal disease was actually considered a badge of honor in those days. (I imagine that it was the best way one could save face, since penicillin hadn’t debuted yet.) But the film depicts the scourge differently, as a metaphor for the end of the romantic era of the old West.

The next prominent images, thirteen minutes in, are huge piles of buffalo bones, white and baking in the sun.  Millions of ‘spikes’ (as they were known) that roamed the plains had by now been whittled down to a pitiful, near-extinct few, killed for their pelts (buffalo robes were popular), their meat (restaurants served Buffalo steaks), their bones (which were ground into fertilizer) and, most importantly, to starve the Indian population off the face of the earth.  Hickok played a part in this genocide, was known nationwide for what he had and hadn’t done, and had much to atone for. Travelling under the nom de plume James Otis he focusses his guilt and physical impairment on the slaying of a giant white ‘Spike’ that has been haunting his dreams.    


In the mountains, a lone Indian – history’s infamous Crazy Horse (played by towering native American actor/artist Will Sampson) is also atoning, in his case for the death of his son and the decimation of his tribe by a White Buffalo attack that he failed to prevent. Assuming the false name ‘Worm,’ he is also tracking down the white specter. In real life the renegade Oglala tribesman often slept in holes in the ground (much as W.C.Fields was want to do when he would run away from home).


The two emotionally crippled loners cross paths without knowing who the other is. Had they known, the story would have ended long before they reached their goal. Instead, fate allows them to join forces to locate the legendary beast, a clever use of the ‘mismatched bedmates’ screen concept. Bronson gives a respectably nuanced performance, and Sampson is even better, communicating loss and friendship in a profound manner.  They’re very good together.  

Other beasts they encounter throughout their picaresque comprise a heady roster of cameos, including Clint Walker (NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY) in a villainous role, John Carradine (GRAPES OF WRATH), Stuart Whitman (SANDS OF THE KALAHARI), Slim Pickens (DOCTOR STRANGELOVE), Ed Lauter (THE LONGEST YARD, 1974 and THE LONGEST YARD, 2005) and Martin Kove (THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT). Kim (VERTIGO) Novak’s appearance is more than a cameo but less than a co-star, whereas Jack Warden definitely qualifies as a co-star, whose mission is to keep Hickok focused on their game plan of old – slaughtering buffalos and Indians.  He can’t decipher his buddy’s change of heart, hanging out with Worm, and it sits poorly with him.


Carlo Rambaldi and his team created the title creature, nine feet high, thirteen feet long, and never for a minute believable.  But fortunately, that isn’t of grave importance.  The monster is great fun, charging the camera practically every time we lay eyes on it, looking like a massive, fur covered see-saw... The effects team used yak hair for the creature’s mane, which is a nostalgic touch since Jack Pierce used yak hair to create Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman back in 1941.


Producer Dino Di Laurentiis had just finished KING KONG, and he fared considerably worse with that animatronic monster.  Not only was it not believable, it wasn’t fun either.  A friend of mine, Ernest Tidyman, who screen wrote THE FRENCH CONNECTION and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, was approached by Di Laurentiis to write a script, and in talking, DeLaurentiis asked Tidyman what he thought of KING KONG.  Ernest, who didn’t need the job badly enough to be diplomatic,replied that Di Laurentiis should put the giant mechanical gorilla on the Via Veneto in Rome and open it as a Pizza Parlor.  The producer was not amused.


Rambaldi’s body of work is formidable.  ET was remarkable, and ALIEN was even better.  My favorite of his creations was the slimy thing that Isabelle Adjani gives birth to in the subway in Andrej Zutawski’s POSSESSION.


John Barry did the film’s effective but familiar score.  The eerie notes signifying the beast’s appearance are similar to those used for Clint Eastwood’s ghostly avenger in the town of Lago in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER.


Commentator Talbot does a spectacular and relentless job filling in all the spaces in the book which were left out due to the nature of the film medium.  For example, there is a fairly lengthy sequence in a crowded western bar, and many of the characters depicted, as described in the book, were historically identifiable. Even though they’re undeveloped in the scene, the filmmakers went to the trouble to cast these barely-speaking roles as the book presented them. Talbot then steps in and identifies practically everyone in attendance, (including a young thug who will kill Hickok, not in this film but a few years laterin Deadwood). And Talbot doesn’t stop here; he also IDs the actors playing these parts and informs us whether they’re still alive or dead.  It’s an obsessive’s task and he rises eagerly to the occasion. I’m afraid I have a little of the fanatical list-maker in me, too, and I enjoyed every infinitesimal revelation he laid on me.


Seems like I’m slathering the good news on heavily, doesn’t it.  Well then, here comes the downside. Director Thompson indulges in the most egregious misuse of film grammar that I’ve ever seen.  We all know about film grammar.  Some love to flaunt it – thinking of Orson Welles in that category.  Others use it so sparingly it feels like your throat is parched – Chaplin comes to mind. In CITY LIGHTS there are only three closeups in eighty-one minutes, and only one of them is of Chaplin…and it’s the final shot in the film, and considered the most profound closeup in film history. Of course, Chaplin deserves the lion’s share of credit for the impact – he wrote it, scored it, starred in it...but still, the use of that ultra-spare close-up has remained unparalleled.


So, hold onto your seats, and go directly to Act one. There’s a meeting in an office.  Hickok is there, some military types as well.  At one point – 16:50 to be exact – the camera pushes in on one of the men, ending up real close.  It’s a powerful moment facilitated by a powerful camera move.  Now if only we knew why he did it.  The guy getting the up-close treatment is never seen again, and we have no early insight as to why he was momentarily so important to the flow of the film.  It happens again at 17:27 and again we’re clueless.  


Mind you, Thompson likes nifty uses of the camera, and he is given here to utilizing the Split Diopter, having one character in a super-tight close up, and another in the same frame in the far distance.  He knows and enjoys his film vocabulary.  Maybe the scene was longer, and had to be trimmed for time, and there were no cutaways available.  Whatever, it’s a moment of great teaching value and absolutely nothing else.  Wish I could have asked the director about it.  Talbot doesn’t weigh in on it, so it remains a mystery, while at 37:15 there’s another of these dramatic push-ins, only this one works.


Something else that bothers me is Di Laurentiis’ decision to make the film ‘PG’.  It works, but an ‘R’ would have been better.


Talbot acknowledges that THE WHITE BUFFALO was one of the strangest films Bronson ever made, and one of the oddest of Westerns.  I’m certainly with him on that.  You really should catch up with it.  


{Another so-called Western that belongs in the Genre of the Unique is Monte Hellman’s THE SHOOTING.  You’ll think it was made by Michelangelo Antonioni under a pseudonym.}



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